by Sam Harnett
Technology companies in California say they can't find enough U.S. programmers to fill jobs. So they're pushing hard for I-Squared, the Immigration Innovation Act, in the U.S. Senate that could more than triple the number of visas for high-skilled foreign workers from 85,000 a year to as many as 300,000. But some in the industry fear expanding the visa program would allow companies to replace more American workers with foreigners like Kriti Bajaj.
Bajaj graduated from Stanford University with a degree in biology. Originally from India, she decided to head home after finishing school and pursue a PhD. But Bajaj soon realized she'd made a big mistake. Academia just wasn't for her.
“There were too many unknowns,” she said, “Nothing was working. I was in this dark little cell in the middle of nowhere.”
Bajaj decided to return to the Bay Area and try to restart her life as a computer programmer. She came back on a tourist visa, which meant that she had just 90 days to learn how to program and get hired as a web developer. That led her to App Academy -- one of many new, intensive coding camps that teaches web development from scratch. The course is nine-weeks long, just right for Bajaj.
Bajaj hopes the skills she’s learning at App Academy will help her get hired on an H-1B, the visa for skilled foreign workers. But she’s fighting the clock: the visas start getting allotted on April 1st and they can run out fast. If Bajaj doesn’t get a job offer before then she’ll have to return to India and wait another year to apply. Some say that if she does succeed in getting an H-1B, she'll be robbing a job from an American.
“If she's being hired for an H-1B visa based on nine weeks of programming work – Are you kidding me? – then it's an abuse of the visa,” said Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis.
Matloff claims companies use H-1B visas to replace older U.S. programmers with younger, cheaper foreigners like Bajaj.
“The abuse is widespread across the board,” he said. “Everybody from the mainstream, household-name firms are abusing the program…. The central issue is wage and mobility.”
Matloff argues that since employers sponsor workers for H-1Bs, it’s tricky for foreigners to negotiate higher salaries or switch jobs. They effectively get handcuffed to their employer at lower wages. That's why businesses want more H-1Bs, Matloff says. But tech companies have a different story.
The lobbying firm TechNet got 100 technology companies to sign a letter to President Obama and Congress, urging them to expand the H-1B program. Dan Turrentine, a vice president at TechNet, says the companies’ main complaint is that they can't find enough American employees to fill their job openings. The cap of 85,000 H-1Bs a year hasn't kept up with the demand for skilled tech workers. “That cap was set back in the ‘90s,” said Turrentine, “when the economy was much less dependent on technology.”
Companies like Facebook, Google, and Hewlett-Packard all signed the letter. But the truth is, most H-1B holders aren’t found at these companies. And they aren’t at start-ups either.
Nearly half work at places like Infosys and Wipro – the multi-national information technology workhorses that churn out the unglamorous connective tissue of all modern business: boilerplate coding, user support and network maintenance. These businesses place workers in their U.S. offices on H-1Bs to improve the interface between their American client companies and their vast workforces in India.
Critics say the H-1B program has thus become a vehicle for global I.T. firms to outsource tech work that used to be done in the United States.
Frustration with the program doesn't just come from professors like Matloff, or from older, out-of-work American programmers. It can also be heard from H-1B holders themselves, including Ardit Bajraktari. The 32-year-old from Albania says participating in the visa program feels like indentured servitude.
Bajraktari is a mobile developer who has worked in Silicon Valley for a decade. He's been programming phones since the early 2000s, years before the first iPhone hit the market. Like many programmers in the Bay Area, Bajraktari has hopped around, working at places like MobiTV, Yammer and Amazon.
“If you want to keep your skill set up to date,” he said, “you have to move companies.”
But every time Bajraktari switches jobs, he loses his H-1B visa sponsorship and risks deportation.
“It's like you have a sword on your neck,” he said. “You have to find a job.”
Bajraktari came to the United States at 17 and graduated from Radford University in Virginia. Ever since he started working, a decade ago, Bajraktari has been trying to get a green card, the document granting legal permanent residence. Without it, he said, he will always feel the threat of that sword—deportation. With each new job, though, he must persuade the employer to petition for a green card for him.
Bajraktari said his worst green card experience was at Amazon. He says the company promised him a visa during the job negotiations, which motivated him to take the position. Then, he says, it took nearly two years to start moving on the paperwork. It reminded Bajraktari of being in Albania under communism.
“To make things move forward you have to threaten your company that you’re not going to work anymore,” he said. “It becomes a weird, weird situation.”
The I-Squared bill now in the Senate has some provisions to address the challenges of H-1B job mobility. It would give employees a 60-day grace period between positions. But employers would still control the green card process. If the government really wants to stop companies from abusing H-1B visas Bajraktari says, it should give workers some control over their green card applications.
The Senate continues to debate what to do with the H-1B visa, and the proposals in the I-Squared bill are also being considered by a bi-partisan group of senators preparing comprehensive immigration legislation.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the bi-partisan group, has been urging reforms to address the outsourcing issue and compel companies to search first for American workers. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has been pushing to ensure that H-1B employees are paid competitive wages. The two have worked together in the past to try and reform the H-1B program. Whether the final agreement this time will contain these provisions remains to be seen.
While the deliberations proceed in Washington, Bajraktari keeps chasing a green card. He says he'd like to found his own company – the Silicon Valley start-up dream. But that's nearly impossible on an H-1B. Another proposal in the Senate would offer start-up visas and green cards to entrepreneurs. If enacted, that could work for Bajraktari. In the meantime, he's still depending on an employer to sponsor him for permanent residency. Only then would he have the same job freedoms as his U.S. colleagues.